The Denver Broncos have seen a defensive scheme switch, as everyone should know by now. They moved from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 front, which has a big impact on the inside linebacker position. It makes it so that instead of one, there are two middle linebackers.
However, with how Denver ran their 4-3 front last year, the impact of the change is minimal. All the switch does is stand up a defensive end as an outside linebacker, while kicking the 'Will' linebacker inside.
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Last year, the Broncos endured significant injuries to both players projected to start at inside linebacker in 2015. Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan suffered injuries that required surgery. In Trevathan's case, he ended up missing the majority of the season. That created a big need for help at the position in fans' eyes, but not in the eyes of the decision makers in Denver.
In building the roster, I expect only four interior linebackers to make the final cut. This does not bode well for for some of the younger guys. Trevathan and Marshall will both make the roster, even though they have not been cleared to practice yet (they will be soon). Once healthy, they will take their place as the starters.
There is little to no battle at the top of the depth chart. The only way neither player ends up as a starter is if they still are not 100% healthy at the start of the season. Unlike the previous coaching staff, Gary Kubiak and company won’t rush players back onto the field without full health.
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The competition comes from the bottom of the depth chart. Now, I do not see much of a battle here. The inside linebacker corps is pretty much set in stone. For the last two available spots there are six players vying for them: Reggie Walker, Lamin Barrow, Corey Nelson, Steven Johnson, Todd Davis and Zaire Anderson.
Walker was a free agent signing by the Broncos this past spring. Last year with San Diego, Walker saw a total of 150 defensive snaps, and played poorly. Pro Football Focus graded him in the negatives in every category. He was brought in to try and help the Broncos special teams coverage unit, but even that wasn’t anything special last season. He is a veteran at the bottom of the depth chart.
Barrow and Nelson were both drafted last year. Barrow primarily saw action on special teams and was rarely used on defense. Nelson, on the other hand, saw a good amount of action on defense, though it was a rough showing. Both players have to take a major step forward from their rookie seasons.
UDFA Zaire Anderson is on the outside looking in. His best bet is being moved to safety and play that linebacker/safety hybrid role, like T.J. Ward does at times.
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This position's depth chart comes down to the health of Trevathan and Marshall. While both of them have been out, Johnson and Davis have been the first-string inside linebackers and both have been doing very well. Davis has been exceptional and will start if Trevathan or Marshall are not 100% at the start of the season. Johnson has taken a step up on defense and has excelled as a veteran, helping the young players out.
To summarize, Walker is a veteran sitting at the bottom of the depth chart. That just screams that he isn’t making the roster. As for Barrow and Nelson, they both have to take a huge step forward and it'll probably be too big of a step to compete for a spot this year. Anderson's best shot would involve a position/role switch.
I see no real battle at this position, not with final roster implications, anyway. Danny Trevathan, Brandon Marshall, Todd Davis and Steven Johnson stand alone and far above the others. The only way they don’t make it is if an injury occurs or they get into some sort of trouble.
So, to me, the only battle here is to see who makes the practice squad. That comes down to Barrow, Nelson and Anderson. It's hard to see all three making it. Maybe two of them. If I had to give it a guess, Nelson and Anderson are the two. Of course, with these three it all depends on what they do in the preseason.
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